What I learned. . .

If you cry you lose.

That phrase was my somewhat frequent admonition to the actors in Of Mice and Men, which comes alive and thrives the more devoid of sentiment it is.  As with so many plays set during the Great Depression, the characters need to hold the world at bay; otherwise, all is lost.  So adhering to the basic principle that an audience is not interested in your emotions, they’re interested in your actions became all the more essential to the production’s success.  In a play in which loneliness and isolation are seared across every page of the script, it is the need to reach out – the need for human connection and contact, rather than actual contact itself – that becomes so moving.  Just like life.

Sentiment is a great trap for actors, intertwined as it is with our need to be loved, our need to be liked, our need for attention.  It had been a while since I’d worked on a script in which the lesson of avoiding sentimentality in our choices had taken such a prominent role in my direction (though what I’ve learned through the opportunity to work on plays such as Brighton Beach Memoirs, Tuesdays With Morrie, and even Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, has informed my directing no matter how large a role sentimentality plays in a script), and directing Steinbeck’s play provided an excellent refresher course as well as the opportunity to focus on a simple but crucial element of my directing foundation.

The cast we assembled for the production was broad-based in its experience and included five University of Tennessee MFA acting students carrying major roles; a number of undergrad students in smaller parts; several actors from the community plus one Equity faculty member-actor handling supporting roles.  I think we knit together a cohesive whole for the production, mostly by applying a few basic principles: stillness, connection, and the aforementioned avoidance of sentimentality – along with keeping the work smaller-scaled in order to achieve the sort of truth that playing in an intimate space such as UT-K/CBT’s Carousel Theatre requires.

Again, I was fortunate to have a village of expert collaborators.  Matt Tibbs as guest sound designer and Ron Keller as guest set designer; Marianne Custer, one of two resident costume designers at the Clarence Brown, and MFA lighting student Tannis Kappell handling the simple but effective lighting design.  Add to that the steadfast commitment of Carol Mayo Jenkins as our dialect coach, John Sipes for combat sequences, and the wonderful Conner Wilson as my assistant director, and we certainly had a recipe for success. 

Sad as Of Mice and Men is, Knoxville audiences were ready for the material and attended the production in droves.  Perhaps the lessons in avoiding sentimentality helped create a moving experience in the theatre while it reminded all of us of our own aloneness and our own need for human connection.  How like the theatre to do exactly that.

Of Mice and Men

Clarence Brown Theatre

October, 2015

Kyle Maxwell, Cynthia Anne Roser

“No one – not a single, solitary, lonely, needy soul – on the Carousel Theatre’s stage wins in Of Mice and Men.

“’I hear it’s sad,’ one young woman whispered to another just before lights dimmed for the September 30 preview of the University of Tennessee play.

“Sad? Oh yes – and poignant, raw, moving, even at times humorous.  But the production guided by visiting director Paul Barnes always is authentic, with a layered richness brought to the story by an ensemble of young and experienced actors.

“Frequent Carousel goers will note a different, extremely effective set by designer Ron Keller.  The rough boards’ rectangular stage dissects the round Carousel, book-ended on two sides by tall barn doors.  Somehow the arrangement makes the 310-seat theater seem larger.

“The Depression-era life portrayed on the stage’s rough boards is harsh; individuals often exist with unfulfilled dreams of better lives.  Yet it’s also a story of friendship and, as one character says, every man’s need for ‘somebody to be near him.’

“With a small cast, Of Mice and Men is greater than the sum of its parts.  Its main characters – roving ranch hands George Milton and Lennie Small – are played by master of fine arts students Steve Sherman and Kyle Maxwell.  Maxwell’s got the meatier role as the mentally challenged, too-strong-for-his-own-good Lennie.  He plays it with the right mix of innocence and uncertainty tinted with a hint of menace, adding humor in a few spots with his timing and delivery.  Sherman’s George is a wary wrangler; he’s at his best when he dampens down some of his character’s prickliness.  He’s stellar in the final, soul-shaking scene as a man who must destroy a friend to save him.

“While Sherman and Maxwell are in nearly every scene, the play’s enriched by strong supporting performances.  Among them are several by actors making their UT debuts.  Joseph Jaynes has just a few scenes to create a total portrait as the ranch boss.  Graduate student Jeff Dickamore needs just one scene as ranch hand Carlson to make every animal lover hate him.  But it’s veteran actor Jay Doolittle, also in his UT debut, who often is the story’s heart.  His portrayal of the aging, disabled ranch hand Candy, who first loses his dog and then his hope for friends and a future, helps authenticate Of Mice and Men’s overall message.

'Not a happy story, this is a very real one.'”

     Amy McRary

     Knoxville News-Sentinel